Thursday, June 20, 2019

Reader's Diary #2046- Susan Orlean: The Library Book

My only knowledge of Susan Orlean was the brilliantly bizarre film adaptation (called Adaptation) of her non-fiction The Orchid Thief. In the film (starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep), a book about flower enthusiasts takes some wild left turns and is shockingly exciting.

The same might be said The Library Book (of which there are no film adaptations planned as of yet, to my knowledge). The "might" is not lack of assertiveness on my part, it's that I'm biased.

The Library Book deals with the burning of Los Angeles Public Library in 1986; the worst library fire in American history in terms of damage. Along the way though, Orlean discusses the history of the LA Public Library, of libraries in general, and looks at the direction and relevance of libraries today. The hook, I'm presuming, for people who are not library aficionados like myself is the number one arson suspect: Harry Peak. Peak was by all accounts an eccentric character and his most notable quirk was his compulsive lying.

Like Adaptation, the Library Book doesn't exactly follow a clear path. Peak's story is introduced early, but then left for a few chapters for Orlean to talk about libraries, then revisited. I assume that she's struck a great balance. Non-library folk, hopefully, will find something surprisingly interesting as they patiently wait to get back to Peak and the true crime angle. I, on the other hand, was just as (if not more), fascinated by the library stuff.

Of course, managing a Public Library myself, I was constantly comparing the LA Public Library to my own. It was clearly much bigger and they took on much more of an archival role than mine. They were devastated by the loss of materials, whereas my biggest concern would have been the lives of the patrons, staff, and firefighters. Not that people weren't a concern at the time, but there was a lot of emphasis on salvaging irreplaceable "things". On the other hand, the talks about budgets, the growth needs, the importance of libraries in serving the needs of the homeless? All those things definitely struck chords.

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